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We take the Kia Cerato to the hottest place on earth

That’s a lot of kangaroos…

Last October we took the Hyundai i30 on a spin to see if it was up to the fight against its main target, the Toyota Corolla of which we tested the hybrid variant in February 2019. The result: we thought it was, in the sense that it provides a credible cheaper alternative (by 3.750€/US$4.200) to the Corolla, enough of a big news in itself when the benchmark is the best-selling car in the world. Yet here in Australia, if the i30 has taken care of volumes, its sibling the Kia Cerato has provided the most impressive rise, and this is even truer in 2020. After two months, the Corolla (+9%) still leads the passenger car segment above the i30 (+9.7%) but it’s the Cerato (+12.7%) in third place that is growing fastest. Let’s try and uncover why.

First impressions of the Kia Cerato are excellent.

To make the comparison fair, we have used the same Sydney rental car company as our previous Corolla and i30 test drives, so we’ll get an apples to apples comparison with the i30 (the Corolla hybrid was slightly more expensive) and an equivalent variant. Like we did with the i30 and Corolla last year, we’ll also take the Cerato on a 2.885 km loop deep into the Australian outback, and as it turns out, during this trip we’ll end up finding ourselves in the hottest place in the the world. Talk about some torture test! In Australia the Cerato is priced at a slight premium on the i30, starting at AUD$20.990 (13.100€ or US$14.600) vs. AUD$19.990 (12.500€ or US$13.900) for the Hyundai while the Corolla Hybrid starts at AUS$25.990. And my first impressions sitting inside the Cerato are excellent. The cockpit definitely feels more sophisticated than the i30, with the picture of the car appearing on the dash when turning the ignition and a little musical jingle waving us goodbye when we turn it off, a flash-looking gearbox a million miles away from the i30’s 1990 timewarp. There are even some – I never thought I’d say that – pretty cool air-vent designs, a sporty-looking steering wheel and – alleluia – 3 USB ports. But standard key start and some cheap inside door materials keep it from shooting right up to Corolla level.

Let’s drive!

Once the Cerato starts moving, it’s pretty clear it is dynamically the worst of the bunch, its auto gearbox often over-revving unlike the Corolla and i30 and giving me a back ache after just 5 hours of driving due to particularly uncomfortable, rigid seats. But the dynamics are the only black spot of the Cerato’s driving experience. If this was just 5 years ago, this paragraph would stop right here, but it turns out driving aids are evolving at breakneck speed and what I would expect today in a Volvo, I found instead in a rental Kia Cerato. Yes, you read that correctly. The lane assist discreetly but firmly notches you back in your place, even if the middle-line is missing (what is this sorcery?) and changing lanes without indicating will earn you a slight vibration of the steering wheel  – all this just like a Volvo XC90 (!) Step out of the Cerato, and the bottom part of both front and rear bumpers – shiny black – give the car a definite rally look that is most welcome so far down the range, and contrasts with the “whitegoods” appearance of the Hyundai i30.

Glenrowan, Victoria: Ned Kelly’s last stand.

Our first stop is Glenrowan, population 963, 650 km southwest of Sydney across the border in the State of Victoria. Settled in 1868, Glenrowan is famous as Ned Kelly’s last stand. Ned Kelly (1854-1880) is both an outlaw and an Australian cultural icon, best known for wearing a suit of bulletproof armour during his final shootout with the police – in Glenrowan. Kelly continues to divide Australia: seen by some as as the equivalent of Robin Hood and by others as a murderous villain undeserving of his folk hero status. In 1879, his capture came with a £8000 reward, equivalent to today’s AUD $1.5 million (825.000€ or US$925.000) which at the time was the largest reward for any outlaw in Commonwealth history. Kelly and his gang eluded the police for years, thanks in part to the support of an extensive network of sympathisers. On the morning of its capture, Kelly, dressed in his bullet-repelling armour and armed with three handguns, rose out of the bush and attacked the police from their rear. The size and shape of the armour made him appear inhuman to the police, and his apparent invulnerability caused onlookers to react with “superstitious awe”, seeing him as the Devil. Nowadays, Glenrowan capitalises on this legendary’s character’ legendary demise: theatres, restaurants, statues all reproduce Kelly’s armour. Each relevant spot is marked in town with detailed explanations, including the place of Ned Kelly’s fall and capture (see the plaque above). In the heat of the late afternoon, with not a soul in sight, it’s easy to fall back in time, surround yourself with 1880 police rangers, Ned Kelly and his gang. After a while you could almost hear the gun shots through the forest…

The Ivanhoe-Menindee track was by far the most challenging of the trip.

We then link Glenrowan to Ivanhoe, 520 km north, via Barmah Reserve, the largest red gum forest in Australia. Even in the midst of Australian Summer holiday (it was late December/early January), this part of the country is sparsely populated at best. Proof: in the 208 km between Hay and Ivanhoe, we only crossed two vehicles, both being Toyota Land Cruiser 70 pickups. 10 km before arriving in Ivanhoe, the earth turns Australian red, we are indeed at the green/red border you can see on the satellite map of our itinerary above. The 205 km separating Ivanhoe from Menindee to the northwest are the only unsealed section of this entire test drive, and it is open to all vehicles when I take it. On 30 December 2019 when I crossed through the track, the temperature progressively lifted on the dash to reach an incredible 46°C (114.8°F). The Australian Bureau of Meteorology says that on that day, this was the second highest temperature recorded in the world – below Marree Airport in South Australia and Onlsow Airport in Western Australia (both at 47°C). Roughly halfway through the isolated track – I had crossed just two cars so far (one LC70, one LC200), suddenly the tyre pressure warning lights up. Probably one of the worst places and times for this to happen. My panic level shoots up as I get out, not only is it impossibly hot, but also very windy and the feeling is almost exactly the same as when you direct a hairdryer towards your face. It’s actually impossible to imagine how lethal this heat is until you experience it. There are no shadows as it’s the middle of the day and remaining outside for more than 2-3 minutes is near impossible, let alone change a tyre. I feel very stupid for not having taken my satellite phone with me, as there is no phone network and the next car may be hours away. Fortunately no tyre is flat and I imagine the low pressure alarm is linked to tyre temperature which would be off the charts right now. I’m able to continue the crossing and arrive in Menindee after 3.5 hours, very relieved. In total, I crossed only four cars the entire time, with a Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger passing me at high speed.

Silverton sunsets, solar panel Broken Hill hotels, emus and big skies.

I stop at the Menindee petrol station to warn that temperatures are crazy on the way here down the track, I get exhausted looks that pretty much say  “we’ve been in this heat for weeks now”, but also raised eyebrows when they see my puny little Kia Cerato… To be fair, it’s a testament to how resilient the Cerato is that we were able to go through this literal hell with only a wrongly activated low tyre pressure alarm. From Menindee, it’s then an easy 115 km west on a sealed road to Broken Hill, where top notch food, incredible stargazing and blissful sunsets in nearby ghost town Silverton await. Not a bad way to celebrate crossing into 2020 if you ask me. After a few days rest, it’s time to head back to Sydney, heading east on the Barrer Highway to Wilcannia 198 km away then to the mining town of Cobar a further 260 km east.

Nyngan is the Bogan capital, but his has two meanings…

130 km east of Cobar on the Barrier Highway is Nyngan, population 1.988, gazetted in 1882 and located almost exactly at the centre of the State of New South Wales. Nyngan is situated on the Bogan River and within the Bogan Shire local government area, and a “bogan” is the Australian equivalent to the U.S. redneck or the French beauf… Far from distancing itself from this dubious association, Nyngan instead proudly displays a “Big Bogan” statue in the centre of town (see above). There is also a superb 1876 Cobb & Co coach displayed, an exact replica, right down to the exact type of timber, of the vehicles used over 150 years ago between Bathurst (350 km south) and Bourke (205 km north). That’s a staggering 550 km journey on rocky and dusty terrain, well before cars even existed. And it’s red and yellow, like Having survived my Ivanhoe-Menindee adventure in what can only be described as hellish conditions, I can only imagine how tortuous these voyages must have been all this time ago. Unfortunately in 1888 the railway line to Bourke and Cobar saw the demise of these services, exactly 30 years after their inception. In my previous Australian test drives, I often described the Australian “Outback” as where fellow drivers suddenly start really caring about your wellbeing, being such an isolated and dangerous area. As if on cue, if even inside Nyngan people were still waving hello from their car, as soon as we leave built-up areas and we pass a giant roadsign indicating to people coming the other way they are entering the Outback, other drivers start look at me like I’m some kind of demented runaway when I wave at them. We are now definitely and officially out of the Outback. But that doesn’t mean it can’t become insufferably hot again. Record hot in fact.

I happened to drive through the hottest place on earth that day (Penrith), which was also an all-time high temperature for the Sydney region.

4 January 2020 is the last day of this Test Drive and features a 400km / 5 hour-ride southeast-bound from Dubbo back to Sydney via the Blue Mountains National Park. Rather uneventful, or so I thought. Even though the Blue Mountains are pretty high up (roughly 1.000m / 3.300ft), the temperature keeps climbing, up to 42°C (107.6°F). And then as I drive back down into the Sydney Basin in Penrith, a mere 55 km west of Sydney, it gets completely carried away to reach… 48°C (118.4°F) between 1:53pm and 1.57pm just as I fly past at 120km/h. That’s a full 2°C (3.6°F) above the hottest temperature so far in this trip which was in the middle of the desert. I have never been anywhere that hot in my life: even when test driving a Ram 1500 in Death Valley, California (believed to have reached 56.7°C/134 °F in July 1913) during the Summer 2014, it was only 40°C (105°F)… Could it be that the Kia Cerato’s exterior temperature gauge has taken a turn into folly after our daunting Ivanhoe-Menindee crossing? Not so, it was working perfectly. In fact at 3pm that day, only an hour after I drove through, the temperature in Penrith edged even higher to 48.9°C (120°F), a new all-time record for the Sydney region, smashing the previous record of 47.8°C (118°F) established 80 years ago in 1939… Even more staggering: Penrith was the hottest place on earth at the time I drove through, something I had never experienced in any previous Test Drives, and the 10 hottest places on earth that day were all in Australia! It’s official, we took the Kia Cerato through the quintessential torture test.

Australian Outback car landscape

Driving to Glenrowan from Sydney at the start of this Test Drive enabled me to check out the Summer holiday car landscape on the high-traffic Hume Highway linking Sydney to Melbourne. The main difference in the Australian car park is the prevalence of the new gen Toyota RAV4, something I didn’t pick up last October during the i30 Test Drive, probably because I was never on main roads. This change mirrors actual sales figures as the RAV4 has now taken control of the SUV segment in Australia, even climbing to #2 overall in February. SUVs now account for almost half of all new vehicles sold in the country, and the holiday traffic confirms this, with high amounts of Nissan X-Trail, Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Kona and a few new gen Hyundai Santa Fe spotted. Once out of the main arteries, we were in full Outback remote territory and as you have verified during our numerous previous trips in the area, the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Pickup is king here. It’s also a roo-bar area, with almost all vehicles even passenger cars equipped with protection to minimise damage when hitting kangaroos, unfortunately a kind of “rite of passage” of any Outback Australian driver, as I learnt myself during our Toyota RAV4 Test Drive last year… A modified Toyota Land Cruiser 200 pickup (pictured above) left me in awe, and the new generation Mitsubishi Triton is now frequent on country roads.

Now to the million dollar question: is the Kia Cerato the new Toyota Corolla? Now that the Corolla doesn’t offer a bare-bones variant anymore, many Australians have shifted their view to consider the i30 and Cerato “the new Corollas”: cheap all-rounders. The Corolla isn’t truly cheap anymore, but it has improved significantly with the last generation, becoming the new benchmark. The i30 we tested was a notch below the Corolla, but also cheaper. For only AUD$1.000 more than the i30, the Cerato offers a more sophisticated cockpit and truly efficient driving aids. It’s not quite at the level of the Corolla just yet, but it’s much better than the i30 if you don’t care about dynamics. So I would still opt to spend a little more money to access the superior dynamics of the Toyota Corolla hybrid.

  • Surprising driving aids for this level of price: lane assist discreetly notches you back in your place, even if the middle-line is missing (what is this sorcery?) and changing lanes without indicating will earn you a slight vibration of the steering wheel  – just like a Volvo XC90!
  • Fuel consumption is impossibly low at 5L / 100km (47 mpg) over most of the trip, and a full tank will last you 742 km.
  • Sophisticated cockpit, cool air vents design, 3 USB ports
  • Sporty exterior design, very distinct from “whitegoods” i30
  • Withstands (literally) record-breaking exterior temperatures
  • Reasonably-sized booth

  • Dynamics are the worst compared with Corolla and i30: auto gearbox often overrevs.
  • Uncomfortable seats make long trips a challenge
  • Standard key ignition (Corolla had push button)
  • Low tyre pressure alert can trigger in extremely high temperatures even when tyres are perfectly fine
  • Passenger side dash quickly creaks and screams on uneven ground
  • Some wind noise on front windows
  • The hatchback elongated shape is an acquired taste

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